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Babel Tower

A. S. Byatt

  Acclaim for A. S. BYATT’s


  “In this major novel Byatt establishes herself as one of the two or three most important contemporary British writers.”

  —Atlanta Journal-Constitution

  “Byatt displays a dazzling range of narrative interests and inventiveness.”


  “Byatt is in top form here.… [She] uses her skills to masterly effect, illuminating a period of our history while employing the many facets of the English language to convey the struggles, anxieties and triumphs of a memorable cast of characters.”

  —Denver Post

  “[A] dazzling epic.… Like a marvelous tapestry, Byatt has woven together the meaningful dialogues of an era, with all their flaws and beauty.”

  —Entertainment Weekly

  “Byatt writes beautifully, and passages of this novel come to brilliant life.”


  “Babel Tower is a great, big sweep of a story, broad yet densely compacted.”

  —Miami Herald

  “Taken together with the rest of Ms. Byatt’s output, it puts literary England on the map again.”

  —Dallas Morning News

  “Babel Tower is fat, compelling, full of narrative invention, multivalent in its structure, and is a luscious and fascinating book.”

  —Houston Chronicle

  “Extraordinarily ambitious, even admirable.… Byatt’s … prodigious imagination and literary skills will keep the … reader happily engaged.”

  —Philadelphia Inquirer

  “Babel Tower is … brilliant and rich, employing such a virtuoso range of narrative styles and character voices.”

  —San Jose Mercury News

  “This is a book only Byatt could write: the humor mingled with a dark, suspenseful foreboding; the deconstruction of great novels intertwined with romance and jealousy. And happily, it’s long enough that even the most compulsive reader won’t finish it in a day.”

  —Charlotte Observer

  “[Byatt is] a riveting storyteller who grants her own wish, making her readers care about the people in her book. The many stories twine together with ingenious thoroughness.”


  “Byatt’s writing is extravagant and sensual, and even her most outrageous characters seem entirely real. A feast of a book.”

  —Town & Country

  “It is all rich and often exhilarating. Byatt writes with a fierce intelligence and a sharply observant eye. Her characters are described with rare acuity and precision.”

  —Orlando Sentinel

  “Babel Tower’s … ability to sustain narrative bite while refusing to cave in to the nastiness it probes pushes Byatt to the forefront of active English language novelists. Here is a book for those willing to be angered, jolted and, possibly, enriched.”

  —St. Louis Post-Dispatch

  “For intelligence and observation, Byatt has few peers.”

  —Hartford Courant



  A. S. Byatt is the author of Possession, winner of the Booker Prize and a national bestseller. Her two novels that lead up to Babel Tower, tracing the fortunes of Frederica and her family through the 1950s, are The Virgin in the Garden and Still Life, and her other fiction includes The Shadow of the Sun, The Game, Angels & Insects, and two collections of shorter works, Sugar and Other Stories and The Matisse Stories. She has also published three volumes of critical work, of which Passions of the Mind is the most recent. She has taught English and American literature at University College, London, and is a distinguished critic and reviewer. She lives in London.

  Books by A. S. BYATT


  Babel Tower

  The Matisse Stories

  The Shadow of the Sun

  The Game

  The Virgin in the Garden

  Still Life

  Sugar and Other Stories


  Angels & Insects


  Degrees of Freedom: The Novels of Iris Murdoch

  Unruly Times: Wordsworth and Coleridge

  Passions of the Mind: Selected Writings


  Copyright © 1996 by A. S. Byatt

  All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Published in the United States by Vintage Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and simultaneously in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto. Originally published in the United States in hardcover by Random House, Inc., New York, in 1996. Published in Great Britain by Chatto & Windus Limited, a division of Random House UK, London, in 1996.

  Grateful acknowledgment is made to the following for permission to reprint previously published material: Harcourt Brace & Company and Faber and Faber Limited: Excerpt from “Burnt Norton” in Four Quartets by T. S. Eliot. Copyright © 1943 by T. S. Eliot and renewed 1971 by Esme Valerie Eliot. Rights throughout the world excluding the United States are controlled by Faber and Faber Limited. Reprinted by permission of Harcourt Brace & Company and Faber and Faber Limited. Houghton Mifflin Company and HarperCollins Publishers Ltd.: Excerpt from The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien. Copyright © 1966 by J. R. R. Tolkien. Rights outside the United States are controlled by HarperCollins Publishers Ltd., London. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company and HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. Alfred A. Knopf. Inc.: Three lines from “Peter Quince at the Clavier,” from Collected Poems by Wallace Stevens. Copyright © 1923 and renewed 1951 by Wallace Stevens. Reprinted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. The Observer: Article by Maurice Richardson from the May 8, 1966, issue of The Observer. Copyright © 1966 by The Observer. Reprinted by permission. Random House, Inc.: Eight lines from “Death’s Echo” and twenty lines from “Circe,” from W. H. Auden: Collected Poems by W. H. Auden. “Death’s Echo” copyright © 1936 by W. H. Auden. “Circe” copyright © 1969 by W. H. Auden. Reprinted by permission of Random House, Inc. Ronin Publishing: Copyright 1990P: Timothy Leary, from Politics of Ecstasy by Timothy Leary, Ph. D. Permission to reprint herein given by Ronin Publishing, Inc., Berkeley, CA. University Press of New England: Excerpt from Life Against Death by Norman O. Brown. Copyright © 1959 by Wesleyan University. Reprinted by permission of University Press of New England.

  The Library of Congress has cataloged the Random House edition as follows:

  Byatt, A. S. (Antonia Susan)

  Babel Tower / A. S. Byatt—1st ed.

  p. cm.

  1. Married women—England—London—Fiction. 2. Trials (Obscenity)—England—Fiction. 3. Family violence—England—Fiction. 4. Young women—England—Fiction. 5. Divorce—England—Fiction. I. Title.

  PR6052.Y2B33 1996b

  823’.914—dc20 95-53210

  eISBN: 978-0-307-81958-1

  Random House Web address:


  For David Royle



  About the Author

  Other Books by This Author

  Title Page



  A Note for American Readers


  Chapter I

  Chapter II

  Chapter III

  Chapter IV

  Chapter V

  Chapter VI

  Chapter VII

  Chapter VIII

  Chapter IX

  Chapter X

  Chapter XI

  Chapter XII

  Chapter XIII

  Chapter XIV

  Chapter XV

  Chapter XVI

  Chapter XVII

  Chapter XVIII

  Chapter XIX

nbsp; Chapter XX

  Chapter XXI



  The Profumo scandal and the Moors Murders were important public events which helped to define the moral atmosphere of “swinging London” and the “permissive society” in England in the 1960s. Other important events were the prosecution and acquittal of the publishers of Lady Chatterley’s Lover in 1960 and the prosecution and conviction of the publishers of Last Exit to Brooklyn in 1967. The Last Exit decision was reversed on appeal. I have taken some legal details from that trial, particularly the unusual decision by the judge to hear the defence witnesses before those for the prosecution, and also the fact that it was tape-recorded in full on behalf of the publishers, who later used their transcript to prepare the appeal.

  John Profumo was Secretary of State for War in Harold Macmillan’s government. In 1963 there were rumours that he had slept with a prostitute, Christine Keeler, who had also slept with a Soviet naval attaché, Eugene Ivanov. National security was thought to be threatened by this. Profumo made a personal statement to the House of Commons in March, denying the allegations, but resigned in June, confessing that his statement had been a lie. Also in June Christine Keeler and another young woman, Marilyn (Mandy) Rice-Davis, were involved in the trial of Dr. Stephen Ward, osteopath and artist, who was convicted in August of living on their immoral earnings, but killed himself on the day of the verdict. The trial made public figures of the two composed and attractive young women, and aroused a swarm of rumours of sleaze and corruption in high places, which contributed to the fall of the Conservative government. Lord Denning, an eminent judge, wrote a report on the “Profumo Affair” dealing solemnly with, among other things, rumours that a government minister had attended sadistic orgies at Stephen Ward’s house in “a black leather mask which laces up at the back,” and that there were parties where “the man who serves dinner is nearly naked except for a small square lace apron round his waist such as a waitress might wear.”

  Ian Brady was found guilty in 1966 of the murders of Edward Evans, Lesley Ann Downey, and John Kilbride. Myra Hindley was found guilty of murdering Evans and Downey, not guilty of murdering Kilbride, but guilty of abetting Brady in that murder. The murders were particularly horrific because they seemed to have been committed for the pleasure of murdering. Brady did have the works of de Sade, amongst others, in his library. The victims were buried on the Moors, and Hindley later confessed that further victims were still hidden there. Both Brady and Hindley are still in prison.

  Her Telepathic-Station transmits thought-waves

  the second-rate, the bored, the disappointed,

  and any of us when tired or uneasy

  are tuned to receive.

  So, though unlisted in atlas or phone-book,

  Her Garden is easy to find. In no time

  one reaches the gate over which is written


  • • •

  She does not brutalise Her victims (beasts could

  bite or bolt), She simplifies them to flowers,

  sessile fatalists who don’t mind and only

  can talk to themselves.

  All but a privileged Few, the elite She

  guides to Her secret citadel, the Tower

  where a laugh is forbidden and DO HARM AS

  THOU WILT is the Law.

  Dear little not-so-innocents, beware of

  Old Grandmother Spider; rump Her endearments.

  She’s not quite as nice as She looks, nor you quite

  as tough as you think.

  W. H. Auden, “Circe”

  La Nature n’a qu’une voix, dîtes-vous, qui parle à tous les hommes.

  Pourquoi donc que ces hommes pensent différemment? Tout, d’après cela, devait être unanime et d’accord, et cet accord ne sera jamais pour l’anthropophagie.

  Mme. de Sade, Letter to her husband

  I fear we are not getting rid of God because we still believe in grammar.


  It might begin:

  The thrush has his anvil or altar on one fallen stone in a heap, gold and grey, roughly squared and shaped, hot in the sun and mossy in the shade. The massive rubble is in a clearing on a high hill. Below is the canopy of the forest. There is a spring, of course, and a little river flowing from it.

  The thrush appears to be listening to the earth. In fact he is looking, with his sideways stare, for his secret prey in the grass, in the fallen leaves. He stabs, he pierces, he carries the shell with its soft centre to his stone. He lifts the shell, he cracks it down. He repeats. He repeats. He extracts the bruised flesh, he sips, he juggles, he swallows. His throat ripples. He sings. His song is liquid syllables, short cries, serial trills. His feathers gleam, creamy and brown-spotted. He repeats. He repeats.

  Characters are carved on the stones. Maybe runes, maybe cuneiform, maybe ideograms of a bird’s eye or a creature walking, or pricking spears and hatchets. Here are broken alphabets, α and ∞, C and T, A and G. Round the stones are the broken shells, helical whorls like empty ears in which no hammer beats on no anvil. They nestle. Their sound is brittle. Their lips are pure white (Helix hortensis) and shining black (Helix nemoralis). They are striped and coiled, gold, rose, chalk, umber; they rattle together as the quick bird steps among them. In the stones are the coiled remains of their congeners, millions of years old.

  The thrush sings his limited lovely notes. He stands on the stone, which we call his anvil or altar, and repeats his song. Why does his song give us such pleasure?


  Or it might begin with Hugh Pink, walking in Laidley Woods in Herefordshire in the autumn of 1964. The woods are mostly virgin woodland, crowded between mountainsides, but Hugh Pink is walking along an avenue of ancient yews, stretched darkly over hills and across valleys.

  His thoughts buzz round him like a cloud of insects, of varying colours, sizes and liveliness. He thinks about the poem he is writing, a rich red honeycomb of a poem about a pomegranate, and he thinks about how to make a living. He does not like teaching in schools, but that is how he has recently made some sort of living, and he reconstructs the smells of chalk and ink and boys, the noise of corridors and tumult, amongst the dark trees. The wood floor smells pungent and rotting. He thinks of Rupert Parrott, the publisher, who might pay him to read manuscripts. He does not think he will pay much, but it might be enough. He thinks of the blooded pink jelly of pomegranates, of the word “pomegranate,” round and spicy. He thinks of Persephone and is moved by the automatic power of the myth and then repelled by caution. The myth is too big, too easy, too much for his pomegranate. He must be oblique. Why is there this necessity, now, to be oblique? He thinks of Persephone as he used to imagine her when he was a boy, a young white girl in a dark cavern, before a black table, with a gold plate containing a heap of seeds. He had supposed the six seeds she ate were dry seeds, when he was a boy and had never seen a pomegranate. Her head is bowed, her hair is pale gold. She knows she should not eat, and eats. Why? It is not a question you can ask. The story compels her to eat. As he thinks, his eyes take in the woods, brambles and saplings, flaming spindle-berries and gleaming holly leaves. He thinks that he will remember Persephone and holly, and suddenly sees that the soft quadruple rosy seed of the spindle is not unlike the packed seeds of the pomegranate. He thinks about spindles, touches on Sleeping Beauty and her pricked finger, goes back to Persephone, dreaming girls who have eaten forbidden bloody seeds. Not the poem he is writing. His poem is about fruit flesh. His feet make a regular rhythm on fallen needles and the blanket of soft decay. He will remember the trees for the images in his mind’s eye, and the images for the trees. The brain does all sorts of work, Hugh Pink thinks. Why does it do this sort so well, so luxuriously?

  At the end of the ride, when he comes to it, is a stile. Beyond the stile are rough fields and hedges. On the other side of the stile are a woman and a child, standing quietly. The woman is wearing country clo
thes, jodhpurs, boots, a hacking jacket. She has a green headsquare knotted under her chin, in the style of the Queen and her royal sister. She leans on the fence, without putting her weight on it, looking into the wood. The child, partly obscured by the steps of the stile, appears to be clinging to the leg of the woman, both of whose arms are on the top bar of the fence.

  They do not move as Hugh Pink approaches. He decides to strike off himself, into a shady path on his left. Then she calls his name.

  “Hugh Pink? Hugh Pink. Hugh—”

  He does not recognise her. She is in the wrong clothes, in the wrong place, at the wrong time. She is helping the child on to the stile. Her movements are brisk and awkward, and this reminds him. The child stands on the top step, balancing with one hand on her shoulder.

  “Frederica—” says Hugh Pink.

  He is about to add her old surname, and stops. He knows she is married. He remembers the buzz of furious gossip and chatter at the time of this marriage. Someone nobody knew, they had said, they had complained, none of her old friends, a stranger, a dark horse. No one was invited to the wedding, none of her university lovers or gossips, they had found out purely by chance, she had suddenly vanished, or so they told each other, with variants, with embellishments. It was put about that this man kept her more or less locked up, more or less incommunicado, in a moated grange, would you believe, in the country, in outer darkness. There had been something else, some disaster, a death, a death in the family, more or less at the same time, which was said to have changed Frederica, utterly changed her, they said. She is very changed, everyone was saying, you would hardly know her. Hugh was on his way to Madrid at this time, trying to see if poetry and making a living could be done in that city. He had once been in love with Frederica, and in Madrid had fallen in love with a silent Swedish girl. Also he had liked Frederica, but had lost her, had lost touch, because love always came before and confounded liking, which is regrettable. His memories of Frederica are confused by memories of his own embarrassment and memories of Sigrid, and of that embarrassment.